review: hot tamale…
“Go,” they urged. Everyone I talked to about my trip to Dallas told me to go to Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexciana. It would be worth the detour to Fort Worth.
A slight mishap from outdated directions from a major online orienteering guide aside (they need to do a better job of updating road construction, which, in this case, luckily ended just shy of Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana’s valet stand), my friend and I found our way to this unassuming tile-roofed and stuccoed casa in sleepy Fort Worth, Texas.
The Quail Tamales ($10) alone were worth the trek. I’ll take a longish car ride through the desolate wasteland between Dallas and Fort Worth – interrupted only slightly by the glimpse of the twisted rails of Six Flags – any night of the week for these masa cakes filled with moist quail meat. Actually, I’d walk to Ft. Worth from Dallas just for that carpet of mole sauce that pooled out beneath the neatly tied bundles. It was rich, dark, and extremely complex. And it was smooth, more silky than velvety; it had clearly been strained, and strained again.
When Chef Lanny Lancarte, II’s food is on point, it’s quite extraordinary. Those quail tamales, which come two to an order, were an excellent way to start a meal. Well, for my friend anyway. I had a less exciting and excitable plate of Hamachi Crudo ($9).
Why I ordered a Japanese-named fish with an Italian treatment in a high-end Mexican restaurant I have no clue. I guess I was hoping that Lancarte could make it, well, alta cocina Mexicana. Dotting the plate with an avocado-green apple puree and tangle of balsamic-pickled onions wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. The three slices of fish were very good – nice texture, excellent cut, and some appreciable aging – but overall, the flavors and textures didn’t work.
That strange interlude aside, almost everything my friend and I had was great. Of course, everything else we had was, colorably, Mexican and closer to Lancarte’s native interests and instincts. You can read all about him here.
But getting back to that point about Lancarte being on the ball and producing extraordinary food, I’m going to skip ahead to my main course, the house specialty, the “Prime Carne Asada.” I think it should be renamed the “Primal Carne Asada.” This was prime beef at its prime. I’m not exactly sure of the measurements of this legendary round of beef, but collectively, every ounce of the perfectly-grilled, juicy, and flavorful tenderloin was worth the $40 price tag. It was attended to by large roasted shallots melting within their papery skins and a papa relleno, a captivatingly crispy-shelled torpedo of mashed potatoes stuffed with blue cheese. As with the mole for the tamales, the Dijon demi-glace, which was part tangy, part spicy, and rich all over, was nuanced, complex, and well-crafted. Laced throughout each bite, the sauce tied everything together wonderfully.
Lancarte’s plating style has a simple beauty. His presentations aren’t the razor-sharp, overworked architectural structures invading haute fusion restaurants. He adheres to a more organic geometry, relying on nature’s contours and colors. There are no dashes, underlines, commas, or any other extraneous punctuation on Lancarte’s plates. Never venturing beyond three or four colors per dish, Lancarte’s food comes in monochromatic patches: an oval of peridot nopal risotto was topped with a copper rhomboid of duck breast; triangles of pink alabaster hamachi etched with vermillion were sided by avocado circles and a mound of balsamic-stained onions; and an emerald blossom of Bibb lettuce book-ended by two half circles of ivory-colored blue cheese and walnut flan sided by knobby, oak-tinted walnuts.
My friend nearly melted into her dish of peridot and copper. She, being a risotto fanatic, was extremely pleased with the mattress of stirred rice – more soft than stiff, more structured than soupy – studded with bits of softened but sturdy nopales (my favorite part of the risotto). The duck, we both agreed, was fabulous: a thin layer of crispy skin clinging to a modest rind of fat paved across pink, moist duck meat ($28).
Both of our salads were simple, yet flavorful. That Bibb lettuce ($9) was velvety and fresh, its rather virginal disposition pulled into a lustier life by the smooth, creamy blue cheese and walnut flan cut through by a light dressing of tart balsamic vinaigrette. I’m not sure how the walnuts figured into the flan; walnut oil wouldn’t make much sense, given that it’s custard-based. I suspect that walnuts had been steeped in the custard, pureed, and strained out before the flan was allowed to set.
Tissue-thin and frilly-edged Baby Lolla Rossa ($9) leaves, amassed in a mound, were dotted and tucked with cubes of feta cheese. The lettuce’s bitterness was offset by sweet red grapes and pecans (the menu said they were candied, mine were not). Though the assembly seemed quite random, would you believe that the jalepeño-ginger vinaigrette made it all taste convincingly Latino?
If the salads were healthful, the chile relleno, which I ordered on a whim, was damning. This was no ordinary stuffed pepper. This was a Hudson Valley Foie Gras Chile Relleno ($16).
I was imagining an Anaheim pepper stuffed with cured foie gras, battered and deep-fried. In reality, it was much more of a deconstructed chile relleno the likes of which no other chile relleno could ever hope to outdo: a dark auburn ancho chile sandwiched a lobe of seared foie gras sitting on a bed of smooth appaloosa bean puree. Smoky, sweet, meaty, and velvety, the composition had just enough texture to prevent it from being a complete melt down and mush job (thought it still tended to be a little too greasy for me – which, is why I generally shy away from seared foie gras). Despite the fact that the foie gras was perfectly-seared, the smoked pepper and the appaloosa beans – both pureed and whole – were much more exciting (maybe because they soaked up all of that foie gras grease?).
We chose a table in a cozy corner of a curtained off alcove and often felt forgotten, which was fine while we were eating, but was rather annoying when something was needed – like when I wanted to order a beer (a tall dark glass of Modelo Negro to go with my steak with a squeeze of lime), it took a few tries to flag someone down for the drinks list. But when we were serviced – once by Lancarte himself, who presented the amuse bouche (a square of pan-fried halibut on a bed of bean puree) – the interaction was friendly.
Tanked, we could hardly manage desserts, so instead of walking away without trying something sweet, we compromised and ordered “Churros with Cajeta,” which seemed like the lightest option on the menu.
While we both loved the cajeta (he should bottle and sell this stuff) – tweaked with lime juice – the churros were a conundrum. They were crispy on the outside, but the interiors were a lot more wet and dense than I had expected or ever experienced before – my friend and I both thought it tasted undercooked. We asked the server about this and she acknowledged that Lanny’s churros are rather wet and doughy on the inside but did not know whether this was traditional to Mexican churros or Lanny’s personal take (or a repeated mistake?). Someone out there with a lot more knowledge of Mexican churros, please do email me and let me know. I’ve had soft churros, puffy churros, crunchy churros, hollow churros, and even flaky churrros, but I’ve never had wet, mushy churros.
Is Lanny’s cooking alta cocina? Certainly. Is it alta cocina Mexicana? I’m not sure. I can’t claim enough expertise in Mexican cuisine to say for certain. Other than a few menu items, like the tamales and churros, most of the food seemed to be contemporary American or classic French cooking embellished and accented with Latino ingredients and flavors.
This was not fusion for fusion’s sake. The melding was subtle. Lime, heat, and smoke were seamlessly and convincingly threaded throughout out meal. Coconut made a brilliant appearance in a tropical, quenching Mojito. And bread comes not with butter but a tangy and grassy chimichurri dipping oil.
What I am certain of is that Lancarte focuses foremost on perfect execution. With the exception of the churros, whose wet and mushy disposition remains a mystery, our meal was flawless. Everything was thoughtfully composed; flavors were clean, saucing was restrained, and temperatures measured. Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana was surefooted, steady and solid. As long as Lanny Lancarte II is cooking at Lanny’s, I’ll have a reason to return to Fort Worth.
Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana
3405 W 7th Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76107